In another lifetime I might have rolled my eyes but I can honestly say that there are a couple of teachers who saved my life. There was Mr. Christianson, a substitute teacher I had in the 5th grade who made math fun. I was struggling and most of the year I got Ds on the math tests. Mr. Christianson helped me get a B. And it was the best B I ever earned.
There was Mrs. Levine, the edgy 7th grade English teacher who introduced me to Daniel Steel. She had a book rack next to her desk and we were to always have a book “checked out”–a book of Mrs. Levine’s choosing. She’s sit with her feet kicked up on the desk, spin the book rack slowly and study the books pensively. You knew she’s made a choice when she stopped spinning and took her feet off of the desk and pull the book from the rack.
“This is a little edgy,” she said. “There are adult themes.” She held to book out and then took it back again. “I think you can handle it.”
She handed me the book and shooed me away. When I read the first sex scene (probably not far into the book) I was a little surprised. The choice of Daniel Steel was perfect because the language was simple, but it was more mature than Baby-Sitters Club (which I’m pretty sure I read every book in the series AND Baby-Sitters Club Baby Sisters). It was time for more mature content. I moved on from Daniel Steel pretty quickly but Steel was definitely a gateway to mystery, romance and fantasy books.
There was Cheri Swatek, my high school swimming coach. I was ditching classes and skipping practice and she gave me a choice. I could either keep ditching and skipping or I could be on the swim team. I couldn’t do both. I had to commit. Swimming was about the only thing I really cared about at that time, so I chose swimming. Of course that also meant not ditching (or ditching less…what? Just sayin’) and not missing a single practice. I also had to maintain at least a C average and I could do that in my sleep (a lot of the time I did).
I wanted to swim, I chose to stay engaged in school. That’s what Cheri gave me.
Erin Gruwell, the ultimate mentor and founder of the Freedom Writer’s Foundation, also saved my life. I laugh now, thinking about it because I was in denial about it for a while. Maybe it’s because I feel like my biggest change took place later than others, I don’t know. I know that Erin taught me what Do or Die meant. She taught me to take leaps of faith and know that I could make myself, through my choices. I had only to choose my path and then walk it; against all odds. And when it seemed like my dream of being the first in my family to graduate from college was slipping away, Erin gave me a lifeline.
That lifeline was the Freedom Writer’s Diary (which I co-authored and edited) and a full scholarship (tuition, books, bus passes, learning disability assessment, counseling, tutoring) to Cal State Long Beach (GO BEACH). College was the most amazing start to the rest of my life, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I remember riding in Erin’s car one day and she said to me, “Kimberlee, you are going to become the poster child for the successful-person-post-teen-aged pregnancy.” At the time, I laughed it off because it made me uncomfortable and my brain painted a literal picture (with my face on a poster). She wasn’t talking about a poster though. She was talking about my success. I was so close to a goal that for a while, seemed so impossible (especially while rolling pennies at a gas station).
And Erin kicked my ass all the way there.
There was a time when I thought my story wasn’t “tragic” enough to be told. So many of the other Freedom Writer stories are about being abused, addicted, suicidal…I thought the life saving wasn’t literal enough. But no, these teachers literally (Erin and Cheri in particular) saved my life and all by teaching me the value of the choices I made.
This is what happens when teachers are engaged with the education of their students. It happens when there’s enough flexibility that each teacher can shape their students with genuine interaction and experiential learning. And for teachers who need ridged rules and procedures, there’s flexibility enough for that too. Teachers save lives when they are engaged and they care.
It’s what Erin did and teaches other teachers to do in the Freedom Writer Teacher Institute. Together, Erin, the Freedom Writers and the Freedom Writers Foundation have developed a methodology that has changed lives around the country. The foundation and the Institute are rays of light in what often seems like a bleak educational landscape.
Which brings me to my final point: I’d like you make a donation to the Freedom Writers Foundation, in support of the cause I have dedicated so much of my life to: education. All I’m asking is a $5 donation toward programs that inspire teachers and provides them the tools to make a real difference in the lives of their students.
Did a teacher save your life? Share your story in the comments.